By Kaitlyn Tagarelli and George Smith
This article is part of our "Learners as Individuals" strand of The Science Behind Language Learning series. In this strand, we are taking a look at the factors, or individual differences, that account for the different levels of language learning success among learners. Read on to learn more!
!سَلام Buongiorno! Welcome back to Adventures in Language! In this article, we’re talking about the relationship between music and language! Music and language are both complex, creative, and uniquely human. We’re going to talk about how much they have in common and how music may affect language learning. Are you ready? Let’s get started!
What do music and language have in common?
On the surface, music and language may seem pretty different: Language is a system of communication, while music is a form of artistic expression. But they have a lot more in common than you might think. Let's take a look at three fundamental similarities.
1. Music and language are both made up of sounds
Music is produced using many instruments, one of which is the vocal tract, the instrument of choice for language. But the similarities go beyond this basic fact: The sounds that make up music and language are actually based on many of the same acoustic features, such as frequency, duration, intensity, and timbre.
First up, frequency. In music, frequency is what gives each note on a scale its unique sound, so how high or low it is. Frequency information thus helps you understand the melody and meaning of a piece. In language, frequency determines which consonants (e.g., d vs. t) and vowels (e.g., "bait" vs. "bat") we hear. Frequency is also related to intonation, or pitch, which is important for expressing emotion, emphasis, or even the meaning of words in tonal languages like Mandarin.
Duration is simply how long a sound lasts. Musical notes vary in duration – just think of the opening sequence of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which has sets of three short notes followed by a long one (da da da daaaaaaa). In language, different speech sounds have different durations. For example, low vowels, like “ah” (/ɑ/) are generally longer than high vowels like “ee” (/i/), while fricatives like “ss” (/s/) are longer than stop consonants like “t” (/t/). In some languages, the duration of a consonant or vowel can actually change the meaning of a word. For example, in Japanese, きて (kite) means “to come”, but if you “hold” the /t/ for longer you get きって (kitte), which means “postage stamp.”
Intensity refers to loudness, or volume, which plays an important role in how both music and language are perceived by the listener. And finally, timbre is the quality of sound that helps us identify which instruments we are hearing in an orchestra, or how we tell different speakers apart in language. For more on how these acoustic features work in language, check out our article on How Prosody Works.
2. Music and language are both hierarchically structured systems arranged in time
Just as language is not a haphazard combination of sounds and words, music is not a random assortment of notes and chords. There are rules and principles that determine how the elements of music and language can be combined and arranged. These sets of rules are known as grammar in language and harmonic structure in music. And when the rules are broken, a little lightbulb goes off in our brains telling us that something is wrong. Well, not exactly...but this brings us to the 3rd major similarity between language and music.
3. Music and language rely on similar networks in the brain
To some extent, music and language are stored in different areas of the brain. How do we know this? Well, people can suffer brain damage — like from a stroke — and lose language abilities but still retain musical skills, or vice versa. One famous example of this is the Russian composer, Vissarion Shebalin, who had severe language impairments following multiple strokes, but retained his musical talent and went on to publish several impressive musical compositions. However, modern brain imaging techniques have shown us that in spite of these differences, there is also a lot of overlap in how and where music and language are processed in the brain. Studies have shown that our brains process the structure of music and language in very similar, if not identical, ways. In addition, changes in pitch in both music and language tend to elicit similar neural responses.
Interestingly, our brains also seem to treat notes and chords like the “vocabulary” of music. There is a known neural response to unexpected words in sentences, like when you hear “I’m happiest when I’m taking long walks on the telescope.” The same or very similar neural response is observed when people hear an unexpected note in a melody.
Are musicians better at language learning?
Given the similarities between music and language, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that talented musicians tend to be successful at learning a new language. This partially has to do with their ability to detect subtle differences in pitch not only in music, but also in their native and foreign languages. Pitch detection is a particularly important skill for learning tone languages, like Mandarin Chinese, Thai, or Swahili. Why? Because the meaning of words in tone languages can change depending on their pitch. For example, in Mandarin, the word “mā” means “mom”. Easy enough so far, right? But changing the tone of the word can change its meaning to something completely different, like hemp (má), horse (mǎ), or scold (mà). Being able to tell these tones apart comes in handy when trying to learn these pitch-based differences, and experienced musicians are better at this. Interestingly, the facilitative effect between musical ability and pitch seems to go both ways — speakers of tone languages are more likely to have perfect pitch than speakers of non-tonal languages.
Beyond pitch, musicians are usually (though not always) better at distinguishing between other kinds of sounds based on information about frequency, duration, and intensity. For example, musicians are better at distinguishing between short and long versions of consonants, which is often a challenge for language learners. And if you’ve been following this series, you know that this ability to discriminate sounds is a key part of language aptitude, which itself can predict how successful you are at language learning.
Interestingly, it isn’t just seasoned musicians who have a leg up in language learning. Some studies have shown that brief amounts of musical training – as little as 6 months – can help children become better at identifying the boundaries between words and at processing pitch in an unfamiliar language. And even when non-musicians can tell sounds apart as accurately as musicians, musicians show stronger brain responses to sound differences. This suggests that musical experience helps people perceive differences in language, even if they aren’t explicitly aware of them. This also supports the idea that musical expertise leads to changes in areas of the brain that are important for language learning and processing.
Now, most studies have looked at musical expertise or experience. But what if you just happen to have an aptitude for music? It’s hard to tease these apart because it’s likely that people with high musical ability are drawn to become musicians. But studies show that both children and adults with high musical aptitude have better pronunciation in their second language than those with low musical aptitude.
Can music help you learn a language?
So we’ve seen so far that being musically inclined or having musical experience can set you up for language learning success. But there’s another important connection between music and language – how you learn language through music.
A lot of things can be communicated through music – something any preschool or elementary school teacher would be able to tell you. Nursery rhymes and other short, repetitive songs are ubiquitous in early childhood education, and are key for building literacy and knowledge in young children, but songs can also be used to teach other subjects like history, science, and even math!
Research has shown that repetitive songs are particularly helpful for language growth. In one study, young second language learners who listened to and acted out the song, “The Wheels on the Bus”, were able to pick up on and remember the vocabulary contained in the song. Catchy refrains have also been shown to develop word recognition skills and lead to more accurate vocabulary use. In addition, songs can promote the acquisition of grammatical patterns and phrases, particularly when they are combined with activities that draw students’ attention to what they are learning.
There is one caveat to these research findings: songs don’t appear to be any better for learning vocabulary or grammar than traditional teaching activities. And learning through songs along is pretty slow-going! However, songs are particularly effective at boosting learners’ enjoyment of language classes, which could ultimately lead to learning by increasing motivation.
Well, there you have it!
Let’s recap what we’ve learned.
Music and language are different systems with a lot of similarities. In particular, they are both made up of sounds with similar acoustic features, they are both highly structured, and they rely on a lot of overlapping processes in the brain.
If you are an accomplished musician, there’s a good chance that language learning will come easy to you, especially when it comes to learning the sounds of a new language.
Music is also a great tool for language learning! So go make some playlists in the language you’re learning!